John Schoustra came to the nursery trade by way of landscape architecture and years of experience in landscape design and build. Today he’s the owner of Greenwood Daylily Gardens, located in the quiet agricultural town of Somis just east of coastal Ventura, California, where he is committed to identifying, breeding, and producing beautiful hardworking plants for California landscape professionals.
A conversation between PHS board president Steve Gerischer and John Schoustra.
SG: John, you started with a degree in Landscape Architecture and working in design/build—what led to running a nursery?
JS: I always intended to start a California native plant nursery, but after getting to know owners Mike and Jeff at Tree of Life Nursery I decided I couldn’t do a better job than what they were already doing. Over time, my niche became a little bit of design/build and a lot of installation work for landscape architects like Campbell and Campbell in Santa Barbara, and Shirley Kerins. Shirley is known for her use of challenging plant palettes. One project specified more than 300 cultivars and 18 different soil preparations, from bog to alpine. Through these projects, I met a lot of interesting growers, including the owners of Greenwood Nursery in Goleta. Greenwood carried hundreds of unique daylily varieties at a time when my only other options were catalog offerings from White Flower Farms and Wayside Gardens; this was before the Internet. Eventually, we purchased the nursery and dug up 170,000 daylilies to move them to LA County.
Daylilies appealed to me because they offered a permanent alternative to annual color beds, tolerated a broad range of plant abuse, and can be shipped and grown throughout the U.S., hopefully insulating me a bit from the California economy. In time we added other genera that were as bulletproof as daylilies, such as bearded iris, agapanthus, and Hesperaloe to our nursery stock.
SG: What are you working on these days and what does Greenwood’s seed-to-production breeding process look like?
JS: Currently we’re breeding for evergreen or nearly everblooming daylilies in a range of sizes and colors. We’re also developing reblooming agapanthus and Hesperaloe that flower more consistently in cool summer night areas.
Whatever we’re breeding, we begin by selecting promising parent plants that exhibit traits that we’re looking for. We cross pollinate them, harvest and grow the resulting seeds, and then mercilessly cull the offspring, selecting just two or three new varieties for every 10,000 seedlings. Usually, several generations are required to achieve our goals, but along the way we discover promising developments we weren’t even trying for.
Something I call “search and discovery” also complements our breeding efforts. I love walking through thousands of seedlings of almost any genus, preferably in a nursery or landscape with poor cultural practices, searching for natural variations of size, vigor, or color. I’ll even dumpster dive for rejects from other novelty-seeking breeding programs to look for promising plants that might appeal to my customers, who are primarily landscape design professionals.
SG: How much time do you invest?
JS: Daylilies are fast. You can go from the first crosses to marketing new varieties in about 10 years. My dwarf reblooming clivia took 26 years from the time the first seedling bloomed until I had enough plants available to sell. I want my introductions to become a permanent part of the landscape design palette so having a consistent supply of new varieties is important or the landscape design community will shun it.
SG: Where do you find other plant breeding programs?
JS: There are breeding programs all over the world, and the longer you breed plants the more friends you make. The more friends you make, the more they introduce you to other breeding friends.
SG: What new introductions are you excited about?
JS: Many of my plant breeding friends seem excited by my dwarf reblooming agapanthus, but I’m most excited by what we’re calling our “global warming” daylilies. The plants rebloom throughout the year, providing color and pollen even during the winter months. There are also some fun groundcover pelargoniums in the works and a dwarf Laurus nobilis.
JS: In horticulture, we accept great financial risk and modest financial rewards in exchange for the privilege of working with the plants we love and with customers and fellow growers who share our passion. Unfortunately, the avalanche of regulations intended to help mostly migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley overwhelms small growers like my neighbors and me. My employees have been with me an average of 20 years without job injuries, yet I pay $500 per employee per month for workers compensation insurance.
A fellow grower told me he figures he unintentionally breaks at least five laws every day before he finishes his breakfast. Another was recently raided by Cal OSHA and cited for having the wrong shape of paper water cups. After a series of harassing inspections and insurance increases, an excellent boss and grower on my street is converting his nursery into a personal 3-hole golf course.”It’s cheaper than staying in the nursery business,” he says.
SG: What’s your opinion about the future of landscape perennials in California?
JS: I think the future of permanent landscape perennials is promising but we need to get beyond planting so many short-lived perennials that are selected for drought tolerance. I’ve seen too many five-gallon Lavandula, Heuchera, Mimulus and Salvia installed in commercial projects where they won’t even last two years. Not only is it wasteful to use short-lived plants, but also the designer loses control of the design intent. Like when a property manager replaces a bed of dead Heuchera with hundreds of wax begonias—then the amount of water needed to keep the begonias alive kills most of the drought-tolerant shrubs.
Urban landscapes need bulletproof plants that will provide an abundance of foliage and flowers and help clean up the environment created by us filthy humans and our pets. If some of these urban warrior plants use a little more water or aren’t California natives, that’s okay—provided the finished composition is appropriate and long-lived.